I think it can be constructive sometimes to view silvopastures (integrated tree, forage and livestock production areas) as a form of insurance in the ranching sector. A living insurance policy through diversification that works on many levels.
There can be many motivations for adopting agroforestry practices. While not a cure-all for land management, agroforestry presents a range of viable production options that can provide social, economic and environmental benefits through integrated use. Silvopasture insurance touches on all three.
Silvopasture as Production Insurance
First, it can be a form of production insurance as a means to diversify grazing resources on the ranch. Trees can help conserve moisture in their understory, and they delay the maturity of forbs and grasses. This means seasonal drought or high temperatures that can dessicate open grown-plants, are tempered in the silvopasture. These types of droughts can occur annually in some areas or are less frequent but still expected in other areas. But in both cases, having a portion of the ranch’s forage production derived from silvopastures insures against total forage losses.
And silvopastures can maintain a source of higher quality green feed when other grasses and forages have weathered away. Moreover, in northern areas, the main benefit may come from increased frost protection in the spring and fall. The ability of the overstory canopy to erase small radiative frosts adds valuable frost-free days to the growing season. Thus silvopastures extend the availabilty of higher quality grazing resources.
Silvopastures as Market Insurance
Second, it comes in the form of insurance for the whole operation against a significant downturn in cattle prices. Cattle markets are cyclical. Always have been, always likely will be. And I don’t see supply management systems taking root in the beef sector. Therefore, even the best and most efficient ranch operations in the world still need to plan for significant market down cycles. Profit margins in a buyers market will be dictated by conditions outside of the ranch’s control. The BSE crisis in Canada has also taught us that export markets can collapse rapidly and for prolonged periods. And these can come with little warning in the modern globalized, food supply chains.
Making sustainable use of another renewable resource on the ranch provides insurance against losses in your beef business bankrupting the whole operation. Silvopastures provide the opportunity to sell timber or other forest and non-timber forest products during a low in cattle prices. And this may be the difference for some ranches between staying in the business for the long-run and falling victim to short-term market pressures.
Silvopastures as Social Insurance
Third, silvopastures, through the host of ecological goods and services (EG&S) they provide, contribute to building and sustaining social insurance for individual ranches and the sector as a whole. Understandable, some producers may not relish the situation, but all must acknowledge the facts: if you live in a rural area, you are now in the minority. And if you farm or ranch, you are in the minority. The political power resides largely in urban centres. And without a constant and deliberate effort to build goodwill in communities, regions and nations, ranchers are more vulnerable to misguided policies. Policies that will wrap them too tight in red tape to move, let alone carry out their businesses sustainably and profitably.
Silvopastures and all agroforestry, through providing EG&S, aesthetics and other non-tangible benefits, contribute to sustaining the social license that the beef sector needs to keep operating in a world increasingly dominated by urban dwellers divorced from the realities of agriculture.